Social Justice Usage
The ability of a particular social identity group to marshal social resources toward one’s own group and away from others. This process can often be rendered invisible and seen as a “natural order.”
The dominant group within a society has greatest power, privileges, and social status. It may or may not be the majority of the population. In the United States, the dominant group has historically been White, Christian, affluent, and male. A dominant group achieves its position by controlling economic and political institutions, communications/media, education and health institutions, the arts, and business. The dominant culture is the way of life defined by the dominant group as “normal” and right.
New Discourses Commentary
In Critical Social Justice, dominance is the yang to oppression’s yin. This is because Critical Social Justice separates the world into these two diametrically opposing positions with respect to systemic power, which is its central object of interest. People are understood to be members of social groups—usually defined in terms of facts of their demographic identities (see also, intersectionality)—and the ways that systemic power flows from the dominant to the oppressed constitutes an urgent site of “study” (through Theory) and activism.
According to Theory, dominant groups minoritize other groups, which is to say that they (unjustly) treat them as though they have minority status, if not in terms of numbers, then in terms of power, social capital, and access to the institutions, opportunities, power, and privileges of society (see also, institutional racism). This process is sometimes called domination, and involves making members of minoritized groups act and think on the (cultural) terms set by the dominant group(s) (as can be seen in the examples above and below—see also, cultural racism and new racism).
Perhaps surprisingly to most people unfamiliar with Critical Social Justice, this can include requiring the use of rigorous scientific methods in research (see also, decoloniality and research justice), favoring reason over emotion while making reasoned arguments, conducting oneself civilly in public and professional settings, expecting people to be punctual, effective, and efficient in meetings and other professional settings, and a host of other utterly reasonable things that Critical Social Justice has branded “whiteness,” “Eurocentric,” or “white supremacy,” depending upon the context (see also, master’s tools). Of note, even calling these sorts of things “utterly reasonable” would be deemed by Critical Social Justice to be a blatant and problematic manifestation of our own white cultural dominance, as would nearly everything else in the preceding sentence (e.g., calling professional settings “professional,” as though we get to set those terms—see also, discourses).
In Critical Social Justice, dominance is not an individual act. It is a systemic one, based mostly in how we think, talk, and teach and in the expectations we lay for members of the society (see also, ideology, norm, and normalize). Indeed, as Sensoy and DiAngelo note (below): “No individual member of the dominant group has to do anything in specific to oppress a member of the minoritized group; the prejudice and discrimination is built into the society as a whole and becomes normalized and taken for granted.”
This view that domination is viewed as natural and normal—present in almost every explanation of the nature of dominance in the Critical Social Justice literature—is not only a primary assumption of Theory (and not really most other people), but it is also the reason why Theory and its related activism are critical in orientation in response (see also, Critical Theory, false consciousness, consciousness raising, critical consciousness, and wokeness). The critical-oriented scholar, scholar-activist, or activist has trained herself to see the systemic nature of dominance and oppression (i.e., developed a critical consciousness) and to call out the biases and “unexamined assumptions” that lead to it being considered natural (see also, legitimate), normal (see also, status quo), and justified (see also, ideology and hegemony).
This is deemed necessary because Theory insists that dominant groups seek to maintain, perpetuate, and justify their dominance both automatically (i.e., implicitly) and intentionally—as one underlying thesis of Theory is that power always seeks to justify and maintain itself. This results in a kind of thoroughly Theorized false consciousness among dominant group members sometimes referred to as internalized dominance. It takes many forms that Theory is generally obsessed with detailing, identifying, disrupting, and dismantling, including white comfort, white complicity, white ignorance, white innocence, white silence, white solidarity, white supremacy, and the racial contract (see also, active ignorance, pernicious ignorance, and willful ignorance). In this sense, one of the main objectives of Theory is to instruct members of dominant groups (especially white people) on the ways that they consistently fail to do enough to check their privilege (see also, antiracism, good white, ally/allyship, and solidarity).
Because Critical Social Justice is both critical and postmodern in orientation (see also, Theory and Foucauldian), one of the main ways that it is concerned with how dominance manifests and is maintained is in terms of knowledge and knowledge production (epistemology). This is another heavily Theorized dimension of systemic power reaching back deep into the roots of Critical Social Justice Theory (see also, hegemony, episteme, biopower, and power-knowledge).
In short, the view from Theory is that dominant groups exclude minoritized groups, their knowledge(s), the validity and epistemic worth of their lived experiences (especially of oppression—see also, standpoint epistemology), and their “ways of knowing” (see also, epistemic injustice, epistemic oppression, and epistemic violence). By devaluing minoritized groups in their status as knowers, not only is dominance directly applied, but the ability to maintain dominance (including the privilege of ignoring oppression) is also furthered. This leads to activism in Critical Social Justice that elevates “methods” like witchcraft to an equal status as science (see also, cultural relativism, social construction, and social constructivism), the latter of which is then denigrated as being white, Western, Eurocentric, colonizing, and both limited and unaware of its limitations (see also, value-free, God’s-eye view, objectivity, and positivism).
According to Theory, dominance impacts almost every dimension of the lives of minoritized groups, mostly negatively, even if they don’t realize it themselves (see also, internalized oppression, acting white, and double consciousness). This creates a pressure on minoritized groups to abandon “their” cultures in favor of the dominant culture (see also, authentic and melting pot). Regardless of what the cultural item in question is—thus, even when it includes demonstrably effective norms like being reasonable and using appropriate rigor (as in research justice), or especially when it involves assimilating with a majority or historically dominant culture (see also, multiculturalism)—this is considered a highly problematic imposition upon the minoritized cultures and people who live within them (see also, cultural racism, new racism, erasure, violence, and genocide).
See also, Oppression
Acting white; Active ignorance; Ally/Allyship; Antiracism; Authentic; Bias; Biopower; Call out; Colonialism; Complicity; Consciousness raising; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical Theory; Cultural racism; Cultural relativism; Decoloniality; Deconstruct; Discourse; Dismantle; Disrupt; Double consciousness; Episteme; Epistemic injustice; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; Erasure; Eurocentrism; Exclude; False consciousness; Foucauldian; Genocide; God’s-eye view; Good white; Hegemony; Identity; Ideology; Implicit bias; Injustice; Institutional racism; Internalized dominance; Internalized oppression; Knower; Knowledge(s); Lived experience; Marginalization; Master’s tools; Melting pot; Minoritize; Multiculturalism; New racism; Norm; Normal; Normalize; Objectivity; Oppression; Pernicious ignorance; Position; Positivism; Postmodern; Power (systemic); Power-knowledge; Privilege; Problematic; Racial contract; Research justice; Science; Social capital; Social construction; Social constructivism; Social Justice; Solidarity; Standpoint epistemology; Status quo; Theory; Violence; Ways of knowing; Western; White; White comfort; White complicity; White ignorance; White innocence; White silence; White solidarity; White supremacy; Willful ignorance; Woke/Wokeness
Source: Sensoy, Özlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 39.
To oppress is to hold down—to press—and deny a social group full access and potential in a given society. Oppression describes a set of policies, practices, traditions, norms, definitions, and explanations (discourses), which function to systemically exploit one social group to the benefit of another social group. The group that benefits from this exploitation is called the dominant (or agent) group and the group that is exploited is called the minoritized (or target) group.
Oppression is different from prejudice and discrimination in that prejudice and discrimination describe dynamics that occur on the individual level and in which all individuals participate. In contrast, oppression occurs when one’s group’s prejudice is backed by historical, social and institutional power. …
Oppression involves institutional control, ideological domination, and the imposition of the dominant group’s culture on the minoritized group. No individual member of the dominant group has to do anything in specific to oppress a member of the minoritized group; the prejudice and discrimination is built into the society as a whole and becomes normalized and taken for granted.
Source: Sensoy, Özlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 148.
Remember, the key patterns of dominant group members include: they are usually not aware of injustice and/or deny its existence; they are defensive about the suggestion that it exists; they don’t like to be reminded of forms of injustice that benefit them; and they tend to lack the humility to listen to minoritized groups. These patterns make it very difficult for minoritized people to speak out. Based on well-grounded past experience, they are likely to be acutely aware of the risks and know that they are outnumbered and unable to count on anyone else in the room to support them. Even if there is a dominant group member in the room who understands the point being made and the importance of engaging with it, if they play it safe and don’t use their position to support the person who raised the issue, they are de facto supporting the unwelcoming climate in the setting.
Source: Sensoy, Özlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 152.
Critical social justice skills for the dominant group:
- In general, don’t speak first (this guideline may be bypassed if the speaker is making a strategic move to use his or her voice in order to interrupt broader group dynamics, but this is an advanced strategy that is best taken up in consultation with minoritized group members and other allies).
- Self-monitor your participation.
- Build your tolerance for listening.
- Push your wait time beyond your comfort zone (try counting to 10 before speaking).
- Invite different voices into the discussion (“Could we go around the table and hear from each person?”).
- Stating awareness of your pattern (“I know I’m talking a lot, but…”) without stopping the pattern is disingenuous, allowing one to appear sensitive while still not letting go of control. If you are aware that you are dominating, stop dominating.
Source: Sensoy, Özlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 48.
Dominant groups have the most narrow or limited view of society because they do not have to understand the experiences of the minoritized group in order to survive; because they control the institutions, they have the means to legitimate their view (“I worked hard for what I have, why can’t they?”).
Revision date: 7/13/20